Psychoactive substances Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Consultation and formulation of the Bill

1.Britain has the largest usage of psychoactive substances of any country in Europe. The public is shocked when it hears of a case of a young person who has died as a result of using these substances on a night out. The scenario is every parent’s worst nightmare. The Government is right to legislate on this issue. However, the speed at which the Government has brought forward this legislation, without any consultation on the specific detail of the Bill, has resulted in some weaknesses in the legislation being identified. We would have preferred the concerns to have been addressed in a less piecemeal manner. Communication with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has been unsatisfactory, which has required months of letters back and forth to try and resolve the issues that have arisen. (Paragraph 20)

2.On 15 September, the Minister indicated to us that second reading of the Bill would be in November. Since then the Government has moved ahead with the Parliamentary stages of the Bill, such that this Report was not available to Members at the second reading debate which took place on 19 October. Furthermore, it is intended that the Committee stages will be completed before the end of October. It is regrettable that the Government has proceeded with such speed, without the benefit of our Report. In general, limiting the time available for effective scrutiny by committees of the House reduces the opportunity for concerns to be addressed, and most importantly, for improvements to be made to legislation. We welcome the Minister’s statement during the second reading debate, when he said “I look forward to the report, not least because of the excellent work that I know has been carried out not only by the Chairman and other Members but by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes)”. (Paragraph 21)

3.This Bill is based on legislation introduced in Ireland in 2010. It would have been preferable to legislate in the UK with the benefit of an assessment of the effectiveness of legislation introduced in Ireland. This Committee has not seen any evidence that any such assessment is available or would have been available in the timescale within which the Government wished to operate. (Paragraph 22)

4.To be effective, it is essential that the Government draws more extensively on the experience and expertise of key stakeholders. That is what they are there for. Even at this late stage, the Government must consult with stakeholders. We recommend that the Government begins to work closely with them to draw up the guidance which will accompany the legislation. We also recommend that stakeholders are involved fully in establishing the scale and scope of the statutory review into the operation of the legislation, once it is enacted. (Paragraph 23)

Definition of psychoactive substance

5.The terminology used to describe substances of this nature has long been ill-defined. The use of the term ‘legal highs’ is both misleading and inappropriate. It sends out a message to young people that these substances are both ‘legal’ and will have a ‘desirable’ effect. This has tempted people to experiment with these substances, sometimes with disastrous consequences. (Paragraph 31)

6.Regarding the terminology contained in the Bill, there has been no consultation on the definition of psychoactive substances. We recommend that the Government reconsider the definition of a psychoactive substance, with the benefit of the advice the ACMD have provided. (Paragraph 32)

Proving psychoactivity

7.If the legislation is to achieve its aims, it must deter producers and suppliers from making psychoactive substances available. According to Police Scotland, it is questionable how this will be done if these people cannot be successfully prosecuted. It appears that the ACMD might have provided a solution through their definition of psychoactive substances, and we call on the Government to assess whether this approach would result in more successful prosecutions. (Paragraph 38)

Concept of harm

8.We accept the evidence given by Professor Iversen, the National Aids Trust, and the Gay Men’s Health Collective on alkyl nitrites, also known as ‘poppers’. Professor Iversen said ‘poppers’ were “not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem” and therefore we recommend they should not be banned. If in the future there is any evidence produced to the contrary, then ‘poppers’ should be removed from the exempted list or controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. (Paragraph 45)

9.Given the growth in the use of nitrous oxide, otherwise known as ‘laughing gas’, and the associated social harms, we recommend that the ACMD be asked to review whether it should be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. If it does not reach that threshold, we are content that it should be covered by the provisions of the Bill, which should slow the growth in its consumption as a psychoactive substance. If in the future there is any evidence produced that indicates it might be added to the list of exemptions, this should be taken into consideration. Nitrous oxide does have genuine benefits when used legitimately, particularly within the dentistry profession and for pain relief during childbirth. (Paragraph 48)

10.We accept the evidence that there is a lack of clarity in the Bill with regard to the relative harm associated with different types of NPS and the appropriate sentence commensurate with the offence. We recommend that the Sentencing Council be requested to produce appropriate sentencing guidelines taking account of relative harms. (Paragraph 49)

Displacement of sales

11.It is expected that the implementation of the Act will result in the closure of ‘head shops’, the main retail outlets for NPS. This should substantially reduce the ease of access to NPS. Furthermore, removing them from the high street should counter the perception that these are safe substances. We expect that this may result in potential users no longer choosing to experiment with these substances. However, established users are likely to seek to continue using NPS, either through choice or dependence. Therefore it is highly conceivable that the market will continue away from the high street. (Paragraph 60)

12.There is substantial evidence that the market for NPS is already moving online, which, due to the anonymity that the internet can provide, is a challenge for prosecuting authorities to monitor and control. Enactment of this legislation will enable the closure of UK websites selling NPS, but it does not address those in overseas jurisdictions. We recommend that, within one month of Royal Assent of the legislation, the Government and the police publish an action plan setting out how they will tackle the challenges of displacement of sales to the internet, including by working with internet providers and overseas jurisdictions. We are particularly concerned about the importation of psychoactive substances via courier services. The Government must ensure that the amendments already made to the Bill will cover this supply route. (Paragraph 61)

The role of enforcement agencies

13.We remind the Government that in our previous Report we suggest that more effective action be taken by trading standards against retailers. The powers contained in the Bill will provide enforcement agencies with the tools to address the problems associated with NPS more effectively and we would expect that in areas where the sale and supply of NPS is high, the new powers will be welcomed by enforcement agencies. However, the level of priority accorded to this in each area (of England and Wales) will be decided by the Police and Crime Commissioner. We urge PCCs carefully to consider the significant risk which NPS can present, particularly to young people in their communities, when making these assessments. Chief Constables should also inform the public of the steps that they have taken with regard to NPS by publishing an action plan on their websites. (Paragraph 66)

Education and harm reduction

14.Successive governments’ spending on education on the dangers of NPS has been shockingly inadequate to date. Action must be taken now, to educate young people about NPS, through stronger and wider public information campaigns. There is already a range of materials, produced by voluntary sector organisations, notably the Angelus Foundation, which could be used more effectively. We recommend that the Government oblige schools, with the assistance of the voluntary sector, to promulgate these existing resources as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 76)

15.The Government must take a lead role in developing and commissioning appropriate and credible resources aimed at the clinical frontline so that professionals feel equipped to deal with issues related to NPS use. This should include the development of a clinical network, including drug services, sexual health services, emergency rooms, mental health services, primary care and prisons. This would enable services from across the country to share their experience specifically relating to NPS harms. (Paragraph 80)

16.It has been suggested to us that data on the harmful effects of NPS would be useful. However, we were told that this data was not collected in hospitals, because the system for categorising drugs does not allow NPS to be entered as a class. We do not see any reason why the category of NPS cannot be added to the existing system, and we therefore recommend that, as soon as possible, NPS data be collected at hospitals in a similar way to that which already happens for controlled drugs. If there are any practical difficulties, we would expect them to be overcome by the time the new legislation is commenced. (Paragraph 81)

17.The alarming increase in the use of psychoactive substances has seen the emergence of a new population of users, who are reluctant to approach traditional drug services. Nor are existing drug services always confident in recognising the harms associated with these types of drugs. It is important that the focus on treating controlled drugs is not lost, particularly heroin and crack addiction, and specialist NPS services will not be required everywhere. Nevertheless, NPS use has the potential to create significant problems in some localities and drug services need to do more to recognise this and adapt. We recommend that those who run our existing drug services develop the necessary skills to deal more effectively with the challenges that NPS users present and take steps to ensure that their services are accessible and relevant to this new group of users. (Paragraph 88)

18.We are at risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the use of new psychoactive substances. We are dealing with unscrupulous people, involved in activities thousands of miles away, who tweak a chemical formula to create a new substance every time action is taken to ban an existing harmful one. This Bill is only one staging post in tackling this problem; but this must not be the end. (Paragraph 89)

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Prepared 22 October 2015